The death in June of 55-year-old Ed Lakata, who was hit and killed by a pickup truck while bicycling on Route 29A in Johnstown, has brought some welcome attention to the issue of bike safety. Unfortunately, it has also brought out some of the tensions and dangerous differences in perspective between motorists and bicyclists, as expressed in a series of letters to the editor and a July 14 story by Sara Foss in the Gazette.
The driver was not charged in this case. Neither of two witnesses could provide useful information, and Fulton County Sheriff Thomas Lorey, after talking to the driver, who told him that Lakata had been struggling on a hill and wobbled into his truck, decided the driver wasn’t at fault.
That conclusion seems to have been based on Lorey’s finding that the crash occurred on or very close to the white line at the side of the road, and it wasn’t clear exactly where. If it happened on the right side of the line, the driver would have been at fault, he said. On the left side, the bicyclist would have been at fault.
But it’s not that simple. As a couple of letter writers pointed out, while the state’s vehicle and traffic law says that bicyclists should keep as far right as practicable, it also makes clear that the bicycle is a vehicle and has the right to travel in the roadway if there’s no shoulder or it is too small, in poor shape or otherwise unsafe to ride on. (No mention of a white line.) And that overtaking vehicles are supposed to look out for bicyclists and pass at a safe distance. This clearly didn’t happen with the pickup truck.
Two letter writers came at it from the other side. One complained that drivers are automatically blamed in these cases, and that he often sees cyclists riding in the middle of the road (despite the fact that the driver in this case wasn’t charged and the cyclist wasn’t riding there).
Another acknowledged that cyclists have a right to ride on the roads, but basically said they were stupid for doing so because it’s too dangerous. He said that it may be illegal, wrong and irresponsible for a driver to talk on a cellphone, put on makeup or drink coffee while guiding 3,500 pounds of medal at 35 mph, but it happens all the time, it’s reality, and cyclists shouldn’t expect society to protect them from life. They must protect themselves by sticking to bike paths or side streets.
Bike paths are great, as are the bike lanes that are blooming in New York City and other cities around the country. More of both are needed, for both recreation and transportation. And bicyclists should use them if they are there. But in many places, especially rural ones, they are not.
Cyclists need to be careful and observe traffic laws, which means stopping at all red lights and stop signs, riding single file, staying on the shoulder if there is one and it’s usable, or, if not, keeping to the right of the traffic lane (things that too many don’t always do).
But motorists must also do the sensible and decent thing, slow down and give them room when passing. After all, it’s another human being out there, one you are going to hurt, probably badly and possibly fatally, if you hit. Share the road.